Marian Keyes has broken with typical style in a book that goes beyond a straight 'how to' on baking, says Claire Coughlan
Fans of best-selling women's fiction author Marian Keyes will be well aware of the reason behind the cessation of her usually prolific output over the past couple of years. The Dublin-based novelist has been unfailingly matter of fact about her battle with depression, which she first revealed to fans via her online newsletter back in 2010. Keyes recently broke a two-year silence, again through her newsletter, to announce that she is more or less back to herself and that she has a new book out, Saved by Cake, from which all the Irish royalties will go to the St Vincent de Paul.
Saved by Cake isn't something that Keyes' die-hard band of (mostly) female followers have come to expect from her. It's not a novel (although she will have one of those out later in the year, which she describes as functioning as a "thriller and a love story, well, two love stories, in fact" and features Helen Walsh, the youngest member of the fictional Walsh family, who is now a private detective); rather it's a "how to" baking book. But it's also much more than that, it's an account of how baking has helped her come through what sounds like an appallingly difficult time, where she "couldn't sleep ... couldn't breathe ... couldn't eat ... couldn't read ... by the time I came to the end of a sentence I'd forgotten the start".
The tone of the text is chatty, colourful and shot through with Keyes' trademark quirky wit. There's a story behind each recipe, whether it's "Himself's Millionaire Shortbread", the unearthing of which was "like discovering he was secretly Argentinean and had enjoyed a moderately successful career as a polo player in his 20s", or "Christmas Cake without Fear" -- "The Day the Christmas Cake was Made was one of the biggest of the Keyes' calendar and entre nous -- and perhaps unexpectedly -- not always the most joyful".
The book itself is a joy to behold. Mouth-watering photography (by Alistair Richardson), glossy pages and lovely design make leafing through it a real treat, even for baking novices such as myself. But that, I suspect, is the whole point of the book -- to take the fear out of getting it wrong and just get on with the business of making fabulous cakes. Keyes expounds her basic rules, the first of which is the refreshing: "Don't be afraid. Really. It's only cake."
The recipes that I have bookmarked for my foray into oven mitts are "Shoe and Handbag Biscuits" -- because this book shows that baking should have a sense of humour and style. I also like the "Defibrillator Cubes" -- a combination of peanut, honey and bananas -- thus called because they're "so tightly packed full of dense energy they could probably bring a person back from the dead".
Saved by Cake is a refreshing read, on more or less two levels. The first is as a "how to" for nervous bakers, it talks you through such terrifying phrases as "nozzle work" (although, as Keyes says in the introduction: "Don't be alarmed, no one is going to make you do nozzle work") and demystifies the whole process. The second is as a brave and honest account of one woman's experience with depression. So kudos to Keyes for producing this wonderful book -- it will give hope to anyone who was ever terrible at home economics at school and also to those feeling isolated by an illness that affects many Irish people but isn't spoken or written about as often as it should be.